In Focus: The Magritte painting that plays with fiction, reality… and unpredictable weather

Lilias Wigan takes a look at Le Temps Menaçant, a work created by René Magritte while he stayed with Salvador Dalí.

An unlikely trio of objects is suspended over the horizon of a Spanish landscape. A female torso, a tuba and a chair float, dream-like, against a contrasting blue sky. Le Temps Menaçant (Threatening Weather) is by the Belgian born Surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967). He painted it while staying in Cadaqués in the summer of 1929 with his contemporary Salvador Dalí.

The objects are charged with eroticism and have an unsettling tenor. The reason for their presence is seemingly chance, causing an uneasy tension. But, unlike many of the other Surrealists — who believed that, by embracing chance, one could unfold aspects of the unconscious — Magritte meticulously planned his paintings in advance. By putting objects in unexpected places and thus disobeying the laws of illusionism, he undermined painting conventions.

It is an illogical scene, yet, with the adoption of traditional techniques, such as trompe l’oeil, and the use of an atmospheric colour palette that accurately conjures the heat of a Mediterranean summer, the painting still bears a significant amount of realism. It results in an apparently credible image of something completely irrational.

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Magritte had a particular interest in the sky and here he typically questions its intangibility by imposing dense and unearthed objects into it. These three unrelated forms imitate clouds in both texture and colour and dominate the canvas, their presence disrupting the void — even questioning the authenticity of the sky. It was typical of Magritte to play with fiction and reality in this way, blurring and interrogating the boundaries between the two.

When Magritte arrived at Cadaqués, Dali was working daily on Le Jeu Lugubre (The Lugubrious Game), and it’s thought likely that he took inspiration from Dalí’s use of colour and brilliant tonality, having seen it in progress. Magritte’s picture was first owned by the French poet Paul Éluard, who probably bought it, along with three other Magrittes, in Cadaqués, and who then sold it to the English artist, poet and historian Roland Penrose in June 1938.

Since the mid 1990s, ‘Le Temps Menaçant’ has formed part of the permanent collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. It is currently on display in the exhibition ‘Beyond Realism|Dada and Surrealism’ until Sunday 25th October, 2020. Entrance is free — see for details.